Space4Culture: Satellite services for historical and creative cities


Matera, Italy

Culture and creativity carry a great socio-economic value. To safeguard and capitalise on culture and creativity, regions and cities need data, skills and integrated policies.

If European borders are exposed to shifts, the existence of a common set of values is and will continue to be the foundation of the European identity. Such values stem from thousands of years of cultural exchanges among the inhabitants of the European continent. Our cities, monuments, cultural sites, languages and traditions stand as a testament of such complex interrelations.

Historical cities profit, but are also challenged by their cultural heritage. Local administrations need to provide efficient public services, while safeguarding ancient and often unpractical city assets: a task that requires accurate knowledge of the territory and its people and the skills and technologies to integrate the safeguard of cultural heritage into other policy areas, such as transport, urban planning, risk management, and tourism.

If cultural heritage is the fabric of our European identity, cultural and creative industries are the engine of our future. Digital technologies are changing the way we experience culture, while leading to the creation of new cultural expressions across borders and disciplines.

Numerous examples attest the potential of satellite remote sensing to spot, monitor, safeguard, study and better manage cultural heritage.

The conference showcased several experiences of use of satellite imagery by archaeologists. Satellite imagery can help detect  archaeological sites, even when underground, analyse crop-marks of remains, and monitor illegal excavations. Moreover, Earth observation (combined with ground measurements and spatial analytics tools) allows scientists to identify those archaeological proxy indicators, that result from the physical interactions between archaeological deposits the and surrounding soil. Such correlations can be used to study and reconstruct the history of places. 

Satellite imagery also facilitates the detection and monitoring of threats to heritage, e.g. deforestation, climate change, agriculture encroachment and urban sprawl, among others. Earth Observation can even be the only available tool to monitor cultural heritage, notably in areas affected by conflict or emergency situations. Last but not least, satellite imagery can also support decision-making. The ARTEK project is an example of data integration into services: Earth observation is used to provide site managers with mapping and categorisation tools and with data on environmental risks. Moreover, satellite navigation helps monitor tourist fluxes, satellite communication enables for the transmission of information from ground sensors within sites, and drones are used to punctually survey specific areas.

International agreements need to be supported by capacity building and national schemes to distribute and exploit the data locally.

Numerous space agencies endorse the UNESCO-ESA “Open Initiative on the Use of Space Technologies to Support the World Heritage Convention”, while the European Framework for Action on Cultural Heritage announces that “in 2019, Copernicus services will be extended to cultural heritage”.

Nevertheless, the institutions responsible for managing cultural sites often lack the skills and personnel to operationally use EO-based data. Indeed, there are still too few academic courses dedicated to this subject. The Copernicus Academy Network might fill this gap in the coming years. The hope for the future is that the managment of cultural heritage will be duly integrated into trainings on remote sensing, and that remote sensing and GIS techniques will be included in the curricula of students preparing for jobs related to heritage conservation and valorisation.

Satellite applications provide tools to improve services in historical cities and to safeguard and increase access to their cultural heritage.

Satellite applications offer reliable data to improve the management of historical cities and support the safeguard of their heritage. In 2001, UNESCO created the World Heritage Cities Programme, aimed to support the development of a theoretical framework for urban heritage conservation in cities and to implement new approaches and methodologies to that end. Satellite applications could definitely play a role in the development and implementation of such new approaches.

Satellite navigation can support different public services in historical cities, such as waste management and rescue and civil protection operations. It can also help city managers to better manage tourist fluxes, a challenge that is particularly perceived by cities where tourists concentrate, causing stress to the environment and the infrastructure. Moreover, it is already used by many cities to improve transport services, as in the case of the Mobility Department of the City of Bologna. Here, data collected through satellite navigation, combined with the right expertise and software, have effectively reduced the bus waiting times, whilst improving the management and use of their bus fleet. Furthermore, Satellite navigation has a great creative and engagement potential and it supports cultural enjoyment, being integrated in numerous tourist apps

Satellite imagery allows cities to have an integrated view of soil, land and land uses, offering precious data to spot, map and monitor archaeological deposits within and around cities and to better support urban planning. Satellites provide city managers with information on land movements and buildings structural integrity that can be used to operationally prioritise maintenance works in cities. The conference also showcased an initiative from Digimat, an engineering company created in Matera. They used satellite data to realise a cartography and a monitoring system of historical parks in Matera that could be used by city authorities to adjust traffic and plan conservation measures within and around the parks.

Finally, Satellite communications can help historical cities in remote areas to access a fast internet connection. Indeed, thanks to 5G, Sat Com will allow remote areas to access fast connectivity, which is fundamental to enhance business opportunities and to give visibility to historical cities outside the mainstream tourist itineraries.

Satellite applications can inspire the creation of new products and services in the cultural sector.

Possibilities for using mobile apps to safeguard and inform on tangible and intangible heritage are numerous. They include apps to realise interactive visits of historical cities and cultural heritage, apps recording and geolocating facts and traditional knowledge, and geolocated serious games based on the history of places. Some of these apps allow users to create and share their stories about city neighbourhoods by submitting images, videos and voice recordings. 3D reconstructions and VR tools are also increasingly integrated into such apps, which rely on satellite navigation to geolocate and activate the contents. Satellite navigation can also serve as a drawing tool, the person acting as a mobile pencil on the surface of the Earth. Such experiments challenge our perceptions of perspective and scale, as showcased by artist Jeremy Wood.

Despite the fact that satellite imagery needs to be processed to provide usable information, artists and entrepreneurs in the creative and cultural industries have already started experimenting with the data collected through satellite remote sensing.

Satellite imagery is used for 3D reconstructions of ancient sites, buildings and landscapes. Satellite remote sensing also represents a powerful tool for data visualisation, as explained by artist Hans Hack. In Reprojected Destruction, he projected a satellite-based map of the damages occurred in Aleppo within 2010 and 2016 onto the city maps of Berlin and London. His objective is to sensibilise western cybernauts on the distress suffered by Syrians in Aleppo, by “reprojecting” the same damages in cities they are familiar with.

Satellite communications can also effectively support the cultural and creative industries, harnessing the possibilities of the “digital revolution”. As an example, Satellite communication allows to distribute movies to cinemas with no physical transportation and to broadcast shows in real time. It even enables actors in different continents to act on stage at the same time. Within the conference, a local company allowed participants to try a virtual tour of an accurate 3D reconstruction of Matera’s rupestrian churches. Thanks to satellite communications and 5G, visitors located anywhere can participate to the visit in real time and interact with each other. The commercial opportunities are numerous, and indeed this kind of service could be acquired by museums, schools and even private companies interested in offering a virtual reality experience to their customers.

Copernicus and Galileo opened the way to a Geospatial Big Data Era, which will create opportunities for both public and private entities operating in the cultural and creative sectors. 

With Galileo entering its full operational phase, satellite geolocation becomes much more accurate and reliable, allowing for improved public services in cities and for the development of apps and games that allow users to discover and build upon their cities’ cultural heritage.

The Copernicus programme has already made available a big amount of satellite remote sensing data on cities and heritage that can be accessed for free. Moreover, specific services have been created and new ones are under consideration, also with a specific focus on heritage. The European Commission and the European GNSS Agency (GSA) are making available funds and expertise to use such data to create new services, while the Copernicus Academy Network is meant to foster the creation of courses to train current and future professionals on the use of remote sensing data.

Finally, thanks to 5G, Satellite communications also carry the promise of connecting remote areas, enhancing business opportunities also outside metropolitan areas. Matera in particular, will be one of the first European cities to experiment with this technology within the EU-funded project “BariMatera5G”. During the Matera 2019 tenure as European Capital of Culture (ECoC), 5G will be used to send 3D images of architectural sites and museums to visitors.

There are still challenges to integrate data on heritage collected through satellites and to distribute it locally.

While Satellite navigation and Satellite communications have found their way into the operations of local administrations, the use of Satellite imagery is still perceived as an “expert job” by local administrations, who struggle to use it to safeguard heritage outside the framework of research or project activities.

This is certainly due to the fact that satellite imagery needs to be processed through dedicated software in order to provide information that can be used for operational purposes. Local administrations in charge of managing heritage and services in historical cities often lack the expertise needed to acquire and manipulate the images autonomously and rely on private companies or on research institutions to build systems integrating satellite imagery into public services.

As noted in previous events organised within the Eurisy Space for Cities initiative, to make satellite data available to regional and local managers, these should be integrated into the thematic portals that are usually consulted by targeted user communities and not via portals specialised on satellite imagery.

Furthermore, even when national or regional portals integrating EO data exist, the data provided might not be compatible with the cadastres and maps used by local administrations, hence jeopardising the potential benefits of the available data. Indeed, the use of satellite imagery by cultural managers at the local level can be hindered by the lack of harmonised mechanisms to collect, file and distribute raw data. In the Italian case that has been examined during the Space for Culture conference, many experts reported on the existence of multiple Geographic Information Systems containing satellite-based data. These are created at national and regional levels but cannot be integrated because the data are not harmonised and, in some cases, they do not allow for the upload of particular datasets.

Researchers have been considered as the main users of satellite data on cultural heritage, but the basin of potential users is much larger.

Within its Space for Cities initiative, Eurisy has identified some interesting examples where local authorities have been using EO data to monitor land subsidence and prioritise maintenance works. In these cases, cities were able to acquire land subsidence maps from private companies or through national portals and to use the data autonomously afterwards. 

Notably, in the examples showcased within the Space for Culture conference, the use of EO by city administrators to monitor cultural heritage was facilitated by universities or research centres. Indeed, scientists are often considered as the final users of satellite-based services applied to cultural heritage. The Space for Culture conference confirmed the role of the research community in creating a demand for satellite data and in contributing to its exploitation and use at the local level.

Nevertheless, the event also underlined the existence of a much larger basin of users or potential users of satellite data in the cultural and creative industries. These could contribute, not only to better manage and safeguard culture, but they could also use satellite data to create new cultural contents and engaging cultural experiences. Indeed, the creative and cultural industries can find new uses to data on cultural heritage that generate social and economic return.

The professionals working in the cultural and creative industries need data to be presented in a different form than the one expected by archaeologists and scientists. The potential of these communities to actively use EO data should not be neglected. Indeed, making satellite data available to creative people means favouring the spread of new ideas and entrepreneurship and hence allow for the creation of new companies, which will in turn be able to profit from the digital shift and sustain local economies. Indeed, supporting the digital and cultural sectors could revitalise economies, especially in countries where small manufacture businesses and third sector companies have been losing competitiveness in the last decades.

To download the full conference report, please click on this LINK